Question: Hello! My five and a half month old daughter seems to sleep very erratically. For a few nights she'll be a great sleeper, then she'll have some rough nights and then she will get better again. It seems very inconsistent and I have not been able to determine any cause. She goes to bed between 7:30 and 8:00 and has a bedtime routine. Usually there are no problems putting her down to start the night. Then the first hour she usually wakes several times (which I attribute to her settling in for the night??) and I help her back to sleep by either rocking her or putting the pacifier in her mouth. Usually it only take a minute or two of rocking. I only feed her one time per night (usually after 2:00 am) and she wakes up for the day anytime between 5:00 and 8:00 am. On her best nights, she will wake once during the night to eat and one other time for the pacifier or to be rocked back to sleep. On her worst nights she is up every hour.
Lately I have tried putting her down more awake or semi-awake (sometimes this works and sometimes not), and then trying to soothe her with patting or "shhh-ing" which sometimes wakes her up more and sometimes will put her back to sleep. I have also tried just putting the pacifier in her mouth when she wakes up, but it seems that it causes her to become dependent on the pacifier to sleep.
Her naps are also somewhat erratic. On most days she takes a 30 minute nap in the morning, about 2-2.5 hours waking up, and then I try to have her take a longer nap in the early afternoon. I try to extend the nap any way I can (pacifier, rocking, feeding, etc.) Sometimes I can get the nap up to 2 hours with a lot of work. Then she will usually take a nap in the late afternoon for another 30 minutes. She does not have set times for her naps, and it is mostly dependent on the time since her last nap and how well she slept the night before.
She is breastfed and I started introducing solids a week ago. She gets one solid meal a day and breast feeds about every 2.5 hours during the day.
All this erratic sleep has caused me to become an insomniac. Half of the time when she is sleeping, I can't sleep. I think its from being woken up at different times every night. And when I do fall asleep, Murphy's law kicks in and she wakes up. I am quickly loosing patience and would be eternally grateful for any advice you can provide!!
Heidi's Answer: Dear Ashley, Yes these unpredictable sleep times are bound to keep your from sleeping well, I know it's tough not to know when you'll be awoken next time ... and it naturally plays on your body and mind too. So let's see how to improve your little girl's sleep and I'll add some tips to help you sleep as well.
Good things first, your girl can sleep really nicely, and that's a good thing to have. It's just not consistent.
The main action points I will suggest are a more regular schedule combined with a more consistent way of going down, while encouraging self soothing.
First of course, check for any simple explanation like too much noise (street, neighbors, ...), too much/little light, always a wet diaper, ate less or more during the day, teething, ...
To start with, I'd go for a set night time bedtime, so aim for a consistent 7.30pm. If you feel you can make it, you can also go for 7pm. An earlier start of the night often gives a better onset of the night.
I would also go for more regular naps. You have not been doing wrong to follow her lead and see when her previous nap was and how long, and how the night was. But, going to a more fixed schedule is usually most beneficial, especially as she is nearing 6 months old.
So set a nap mid-morning. Then one early afternoon and one later afternoon, or just go for one mid-afternoon. Be rather strict about the bedtime but do arrange them at moments when you know she is typically tired (but far from over-tired of course).
Don't go through a "lot of work" to extend her nap. Simple extensions like going for a long stroller walk or a walk in the sling at regular times work best. Or go to her room a bit before she typically wakes and pat, stroke her forehead or similar, for several minutes to help keep her asleep.
But once she wakes, take her out without further issues. It's then on to the next sleep.
Whether it is for naps or at night, always put her down in the same way. Have a simple bedtime routine. Decide whether you will use the pacifier or not and then be consistent with that. If you manage to help her sleep without the pacifier, that will save you the trouble later on when she looses it and you will need to pop it back in at night.
Keep the one feeding around 2am.
And whenever putting her down, work with the gentle self soothing method to teach her how to settle for sleep independently. You have been doing that more or less lately as you describe, but do keep it up, it does take a while for both of you to get used to it and for the good habit to set. Going very gradually is key.
Then for yourself, relaxing will be key. And I know very well that that is easier said than done. But really, without worrying about the amount of hours of sleep you get (hide your bedside clock to start with!), focus on relaxing. Your little girl will sleep, and more and more in the weeks to come, don't worry about that.